Friday, 26 August 2011

A Quantum of SOLACE

More than a quantum of SOLACE: Chief Executives are advised 'to be passionate' ...

Since Mrs Angry has been dabbling in the arcane mysteries of local politics, she has noticed that there is a common source of many of the dark, elemental forces that influence the activities of senior officers in local authorities around the country. That common source is the organisation known as SOLACE, no, not an evil empire of puppets created by Gerry Anderson, but close: the Society of Local Authority Chief Executive and Senior Managers.

This body is ostensibly a professional association that works as a network of support and lobbying for the benefit of its members. But it is so much more, too: it is extremely influential, and has links with many large and powerful companies, many of whom are now deeply committed to profiting from the massive push to externalise public sector services.

We are of course seeing this frantic push right here, right now, in Broken Barnet, in the guise of the hugely controversial One Barnet programme, an ill designed model of outsourced services, and an agenda that is being advanced with absolutely no promise of being able to deliver the savings it promises, or to retain a satisfactory standard of performance. Despite the claims of former leader and now MP Mike Freer to have come up with the 'easycouncil' concept, Barnet is just one authority of many which decided to adopt such models, and in every case promoted by an enthusiastic Chief Executive who belongs to, yes, of course, SOLACE.

SOLACE has a special scheme to promote links between companies and its members. According to the website:

"Launched in 2001, the SOLACE Corporate Partner Programme is active public-private partnership between the corporate business community, SOLACE and its members.

The Programme represents an exciting opportunity for commercial sector business partners to work closely with local government, and is unique in that it strategically promotes and encourages the development and exchange of creative ideas, improved communications and innovative products and services."

SOLACE lists a favoured number of companies and organisations belonging to this programme as gold, silver and bronze business partners: apart from one charity these include, oh, hello, gold partner BT, and other companies specialising in outsourcing provision - Capgemini, Steria, Liberata, Zurich Municipal etc - many of them, interestingly, frequent visitors to the Broken Barnet blog.

As the website informs us:

"Partner working opens up important lines of communication and provides opportunities for the sharing of expertise, resources and best practice between professionals in the public and private sectors."

Marvellous. It's good to share, isn't it?

The golden future of outsourcing has become somewhat tarnished in the recent past, however: the story of Suffolk CEO Andrea Hill (rumoured to be a friend of Barnet's own CEO Nick Walkley), is an example of how the unpopularity of the large scale introduction of private sector involvement, especially if driven by such a high profile, controversial CEO, can have unexpected consequences, and lead, as in Suffolk, to a reconsideration of the whole concept.

And of course, more importantly, as we know now the government is trying to pull back from the massive scale of outsourcing anyway: we have seen evidence of this already from stories like this in the Guardian on May 3 2011:

Coalition scales back privatisation plans over 'excess profitmaking' fears

"The government has privately admitted it is scaling back its plans to privatise swaths of the public sector for fear of appearing to be in favour of private companies excessively profiting from the taxpayer.

A leaked memo of a meeting between business chiefs and the minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, says there will be "no return to the 1990s" and wholesale outsourcing. Maude is preparing a white paper on public services – delayed since February – setting out the future direction of public services, which is expected to contain plans to match private sector companies to charities and volunteer groups to run public services."

Mrs Hill, incidentally, made herself few friends in her time at Suffolk County Council, and perhaps the 23 sessions - at £525 plus a go - with a coach called Sol Davidson did little to help matters - although perhaps Sol offered much needed support to Mrs Hill in the latter part of her time there, teaching her skills in 'leading on the edge of chaos'.

According to an article in the Mail on 15th March, Davidson had:

"... worked closely with the local government chief executives’ professional body Solace.

He was the main author of a booklet for the group entitled ‘Flying High – a new look at local government leadership, transformation and the power of conversation’.

In it he advises executives to ‘be passionate’ ...

As an example of the problems faced by executives, one council chief is quoted as saying: ‘On my first day as a chief executive when the door to my office was shut and I was left alone for the first time, I was left wondering what to do next. I phoned my mother.’ Excuse Mrs Angry, oh dear ... sniff, pass her a tissue ... his mother ...

But, oh how Mrs Angry smirked to read this statement by Grant Shapps, published just the other day, as reported on the website:

Shapps calls on councils to cease funding SOLACE

Housing minister Grant Shapps has urged councils to cease funding the Society of Local Authority Chief Executive and Senior Managers (SOLACE), accusing the representative body and its commercial arms of promoting ever-higher senior salaries.

SOLACE Enterprises, which operates as a 'not for profit' public sector company helping councils make senior level appointments and fill interim management roles, is currently overhauling its business plan. Former SOLACE general director David Clark, who has been seconded from the society, leads the refresh.

In a statement issued last night, however, Mr Shapps said: 'I fail to see the business case for the public funding a body that has acted as a broker for local authority chief executives helping to bump up their pay as they move from council to council.

'There is an urgent need to rein in excessive chief exec pay packets and exercise some restraint, which is why I am calling on all public bodies to cease funding SOLACE.'

Responding to criticisms made earlier in the week, chair of SOLACE Enterprises Rich Benton said criticisms of the organisation's role in the recruitment of local government chief executives were inaccurate and misleading.

He stated the body provides independent advice on the appointment process and that no serving chief executive is involved in decisions on appointments or setting salaries.

The former Mouchel chair and Capita Sales director, who replaced Sir Michael Pitt last year added: 'We play no role in setting salary levels merely advise on market forces based on available data. Salaries are set by the Elected Members of the Council representing the public so the people who pay their salaries do in fact have a say in the process.'

There may be some confusion here, and elsewhere, about the division between SOLACE and SOLACE Enterprises. Let Mrs Angry explain. SOLACE Enterprises is nothing whatsoever to do with SOLACE - except that it is really, but all the SOLACE and SOLACE Enterprise people like to pretend that they are completely different bodies. Got that?

Whereas SOLACE acts as a sort of lobbying and professional body for its CEO and senior officer members, SOLACE Enterprises acts as a recruitment consultancy. There is a big argument as to whether the latter has pushed the salaries of CEOs up to the ludicrously high level they have now reached, and whether or not this represents a conflict of interest. Apart from Grant Shapps, other leading Tories - and John Redwood - have voiced their concerns on this issue.

Frankly, Mrs Angry doesn't think it matters how the salaries became so obscenely bloated: the high flying CEOs are all a bunch of overpaid chancers, and are pushing for the highest salaries they can get without being prepared to accept the level of responsibility that would go with such a high reward in the private sector. They would be demanding the highest salaries anyway. Of course in the private sector, if a senior executive fails to perform, he or she loses their job. What happens in the public sector? If a CEO f*cks up, do they get the sack? No. They stay in place, or receive a generous severance package, paid for by the local tax payers.

The issue that Mrs Angry thinks is rather more worrying is the intimacy between the major outsourcing companies - who are now feasting on the huge body of externalised services being pushed out to the private sector - and many of the CEOs and senior officers closely associated with SOLACE.

As we see from the extract, the chair of SOLACE Enterprises was formerly at Capita Sales. Capita is of course a major player in the outsourcing field, and is currently bidding for some of the huge number of services currently being pimped by the Tory leadership - and especially the proselytising senior officers - of the London Borough of Broken Barnet.

Many other large companies are closely associated with SOLACE. BT, for example. Only recently a contact of Mrs Angry's was present at an exclusive SOLACE event held at the BT Tower: according to the SOLACE website, BT is one of SOLACE's 'gold partners'. I'll bet. Let's not even mention the BT Vital Vision public sector connections here, shall we? Oh, alright. Mrs Andrea Hill: vital visionary, for example. Leo Boland, former CEO at Barnet: vital visionary. Mike Freer, former leader of Barnet Council, vital visionary. I'll stop there, because I'm boring myself.

There is a gentleman by the name of Mr Max Wide, who belongs to BT, but works on long term secondments with local authorities - he worked at Barnet, and then Suffolk, amongst many others - and he is also active in SOLACE. According to his 'Linkedin' details, he describes in brief - (Mrs Angry suspects he may being a little modest about his past achievements) -his current employment as:

  • Director, Strategic Development at BT Government
  • Director of Organisational Change, Suffolk County Council - and past employment as
  • Lead Associate, Leadership and Cultural Change at SOLACE Enterprises

He wrote a handbook for SOLACE in 2005, when he was described as a Senior Associate. In April 2010, he wrote an article for 'in Focus', their e-magazine, 'Access to information is a right', discussing a SOLACE masterclass on social networking, and helpfully using an example of a council that had worked with BT. Of course these individuals are doing absolutely nothing wrong, or in breach of any regulations, by moving from company to company, body to body. But this demonstrates what a comparatively small and incestuous world we are entering, when so much money is at stake for such powerful companies, all vying for business from a new and inexperienced public sector market.

There is however, a more urgent potential conflict of interest which arises in a limited market place, when companies are engaging with public sector CEOs or senior officers who are not subject to the same rules in regard to declarations of interest which apply to their nominal masters, the politicians, whether government ministers or local councillors.

As we have seen in Barnet, there is a marked reluctance to answer questions about officers' interests, gifts and hospitality, which, while implying no irregular activity on behalf of these officers, is unfortunate, and clearly does not benefit the cause of transparency and accountability in public office. Access to information is a right, after all, even here in Broken Barnet, is it not, Mr Wide, especially for we bloggers using social networking/social media to er, what was the SOLACE phrase ... to open up important lines of communication? Maybe not the ones you want, but still ...

Thanks to a tweeted link by the Guardian's Patrick Butler, Mrs Angry has discovered the following rebuttal of Shapp's comments by a SOLACE apologist and former employee, Mike Bennett: . In an article with the title 'Shapps' Punch and Judy Localism' - and a nice picture, only someone is missing from the corner (you been reading this blog, Mr Bennett, in France, by any chance?) our Mike claims he isn't so bothered by Shapp's remarks because:

'Mr Shapps is simply exercising his right to make political capital at the expense of hard-working public servants'


Mr Bennett rejects the idea that SOLACE, sorry, SOLACE Enterprises, is responsible for excessive pay levels of CEOs and denies that SOLACE is publicly funded, explaining:

"As is well known in local government circles, most of SOLACE’s income comes from commercial arrangements with private and voluntary sector bodies who want to tap into SOLACE’s policy expertise. SOLACE has been working with private and voluntary sector suppliers for years in a way which is strikingly in line with government policy indeed …."

Ah, good, that's alright then. No potential conflict of interest there, that Mrs Angry can spot. Where are my reading specs, btw, anyone seen them? Always losing them.

Oh, and I forgot to mention - there are some interesting entries in the Barnet online expenses: Mrs Angry thanks the ever vigilant Mr Mustard for telling her that in February, we tax payers here in Broken Barnet paid £11,496 to SOLACE Enterprises Ltd, as miscellanaeous, central expenses, for some reason. And Mrs Angry, just on a random look, so there may well be other entries, noticed that the Chief Executive's services charged us £665 last April for 'conference expenses, SOLACE ltd. Mrs Angry is confident that this was money well spent, of course.

Ah: talking of SOLACE conferences, here is an amusing tale from an article in the Western Mail in March:

Read More

"A conference which will see chief executives of cash- strapped local authorities direct actors in sketches about the financial crisis, was yesterday criticised by campaigners.

Tickets for the annual SOLACE (Society of Local Authority Chief Executives) conference – which will bring together representatives from 200 councils across Britain – cost up to £845 of taxpayers’ money each.

The event, at Cardiff International Arena, will see council staff taking part in workshops, including directing theatre sketches relating to the impending austerity measures.

The Taxpayers’ Alliance said it was “insulting” to see public funds being spent on such events when jobs are under threat due to financial cuts.

But Solace and two of the councils attending said the conference provided vital training in the face of unprecedented changes to local authorities. The Taxpayers’ Alliance said the conference – and especially a theatre workshop called Making a Drama out of a Financial Crisis – seemed inappropriate ahead of heavy funding cuts in the Comprehensive Spending Review next month.

“It’s just insulting that these chief executives will be meeting in a first-rate venue and playing drama games while workers are being made redundant. The irony is that this jolly is meant to guide bosses on making savings,” said a spokeswoman.

“As these executives are singing about the financial crisis, the rest of us are bracing ourselves for cuts to frontline services when in truth there is, quite evidently, a lot of fat that should be trimmed first.”

The programme of events lists the drama workshop as a way to show “the importance of understanding the reality of issues and the implications of decisions managers make”.

The Solace website states: “Chief executives and senior managers will be given the chance to confront contentious issues and challenge the accepted way of doing things, when they have a theatrical mirror held up to them, reflecting on how a crisis can become a drama.”

Participants will watch a short dramatic scene before working in groups to direct a new version of the sketch."

Laugh - or cry?

Wouldn't you have paid good money to see these idiots disporting themselves in front of a theatrical mirror? Oh, hold on, we did pay good money, didn't we? And now we are seeing the final production for ourselves, played out in Town Halls right across the country, not so much a drama, though: more of a tragedy, wouldn't you say?


Mr Mustard said...

Mr Mustard was not deceived by the nonsense spouted by Rich Benton ( Rich! Very Rich probably ) which follows here:

The former Mouchel chair and Capita Sales director, who replaced Sir Michael Pitt last year added: 'We play no role in setting salary levels merely advise on market forces based on available data. Salaries are set by the Elected Members of the Council representing the public so the people who pay their salaries do in fact have a say in the process.

So when you are appointed to advise on salary levels and you say that the market rate is £200,000 p.a. what dopey councillor will know better? The public have no real say; they vote a councillor in and then they are stuck with them no matter how lazy or inept they turn out to be.

How we reverse the executive pay arms race at the same time as low paid workers are being forced into a race for the bottom ( not painted in gold) is a thorny issue which I would like councillors to deal with.

Mrs Angry said...

Indeed, Mr Mustard: this is the weakness in the argument that localism is going to empower communities. There is no way in which members of the community can influence the decision making process of local authorities between elections, once every four years. In Barnet, the Tory administration has gone out of its way to disengage from the electorate, by assaulting the constitution to minimise the opportunities for debate and consultation.

Mrs Angry said...

Mrs Angry apologises for unsettling some of the lady readers of this blog, a surprising number of whom appear to share Mrs Angry's interest in the professional bodies of Chief Executives, or possibly in lewd photos of Daniel Craig ...